What is the role of rhetoric in a civil society? In this thought-provoking book, James L. Kastely examines works by writers from Plato to Jane Austen and locates a line of thinking that values rhetoric but also raises questions about the viability of rhetorical practice. While dealing principally with literary theory, rhetoric, and philosophy, the author's arguments extend to practical concerns and open up the way to deeper thinking about individual responsibility for existing injustices, for inadvertently injuring others, and for silencing those without power.
Challenging the traditional claim that Plato is the chief opponent of rhetoric, Kastely contends that he was its most sophisticated theorist. Plato, Sophocles, and Euripides, the author asserts, recognized an essential paradox: while urgently believing in the need for rhetoric in a world where injustice cannot be eliminated, they nevertheless regarded the possibilities of rhetoric with skepticism. Tracing the modern recovery of a skeptical rhetorical tradition to Jane Austen, the author argues that Sartre's work displays the incoherence within modernist thought on discourse and reveals the tensions between two strains of postmodern thought--deconstructionism and Marxism. Kastely concludes by showing how the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke has returned to the insights of classical rhetoric in order to balance a skeptical stance toward persuasion with a commitment to act in a world with persistent injustice.